Wednesday, July 28, 2010


Summer means going to the beach. It always has. Sand and sea and salt water taffy and driftwood campfires and hot dogs and The Beatles. Check out this faded old bubblegum card back when they were fab. This was a typical beach photo-op romp in silly striped suits. The lads were always about fun, and they were a big part of summertime when you listened to them on cheapo transistor radios outside in the sunshine. Maybe at the beach, if you were lucky. Sure, the Beach Boys made a career out of the beach, but these pallid Liverpudlians also enjoyed a good beach trip.

They always did. Later, when they were hipper, and they had started to write more personal songs, their zany beach antics continued. The songs they strummed around the campfire were getting deeper, and they were adding dimensions that would expand even further on "Rubber Soul" and "Revolver," but they could still have a good time. This tune is nothing heavy, but the clip--from the movie "Help!, filmed in the Bahamas--is more good old fashioned summer fun at the beach.


Pete Seeger, folksinger, activist and longtime radical has written a new protest song about the disastrous BP oil spill. Seeger, born in 1919, isn't content to grow old quietly. He still gets riled up about injustice. Back in the day, Pete rode with Woody Guthrie throughout the country singing at rallies and barn dances and picket lines, at civil rights meetings and peace marches, and he was beaten and jailed but he didn't shut up. As an original member of the Weavers (with Woody) he was blacklisted by McCarthy in the fifties, but he didn't shut up. Now he's ninety one years old, his voice is rough and old age is wearing on him, but he still won't shut up.

"When the drill baby drill turns to spill baby spill," he sings in his gravelly voice. "God's counting on me, God's counting on you."

Pete Seeger and Woody Guthrie back in the day

Pete performed the new song at a fundraising concert for the Gulf Restoration Network and Global Green USA. "It's a strange, strange song," he said to Rolling Stone. "I performed for 40 newspaper and radio reporters," he said. "It made sense down there, too. When there's a great big problem lets get together and do something about it."

Saturday, July 24, 2010


Oswald the Lucky Rabbit
was an anthropomorphic rabbit created by Ub Iwerks and Walt Disney in the 1920s for Universal, but after a disagreement in 1929 (Disney requested an increased budget from Charles Mintz, and Mintz suggested Walt take a twenty percent budget cut) Disney left to create another character--based on Oswald but changed enough to avoid litigation--called Mickey Mouse. Perhaps you've heard of him. At any rate, Mintz opened his own studio (mostly of former Disney employees) and produced more Oswald cartoons, and then finally the production of Oswald fell to Walter Lantz (who would later create Woody Woodpecker) and Lantz produced a whopping 140 Oswald cartoons in the next decade. The character got a makeover in Lantz's hands (a cuter face and Mickey-style white gloves) and the race was on. Eventually, in 2006, the rights to Oswald and many other small assets were acquired by the Walt Disney Company.

This short film from the Walter Lantz Studios shows how animated films were made back in the 1930s and 40s. In this "Going Places" documentary, we follow the creation of an Oswald the Lucky Rabbit episode.

The political dramas of cartoonland continued after the age of cell animation morphed into the present age of computer animation. Pixar, one of the most succesful animation studios in the modern world (they made "Toy Story," "The Incredibles," "Ratatouille" and recently "Up") started under Disney's wing but had differences over "Toy Story 2," resulting in a new agreement. Pixar wanted to control production entirely and own the resulting film properties, collect 100% of the profits and pay Disney ten to fifteen percent for distribution. Disney made faces. The conditions were unacceptable to Disney, but Pixar--now highly successful and feeling some clout--refused to budge. Steve Jobs (yes, that Steve Jobs) told Michael Eisner, Disney head, that he would actively look for other partners. To make a long story short, Disney ended up buying Pixar for approximately $7.4 billion in an all-stock deal.

The following behind-the-scenes look at Pixar seems a stark contrast to the glimpse of the workaday world of the Lantz studios above, but don't let the gaudy luau shirts and razor scooters fool you; these Pixar people are highly trained professionals with the power and connections to create beautiful mind-blowing animation--and to crush rivals like the warlords of yesteryear. In spite of all the cute little animals and funny stories, the animated film industry is a multi-billion dollar global business that looks out for itself--as it always has. Under that white three-fingered glove is an iron fist.

Thursday, July 22, 2010


The Avett Brothers play "I and Love and You" on the David Letterman show. This is mountain music all dressed up for a big New York City television show, but at heart these two brothers from North Carolina are country boys. Their guitar-picking and harmonies come from the hills and hollows of another time.

Summer is a time for big outdoor music festivals. Bonneroo is a more relaxed setting than the NBC studios. Here we go backstage and onstage with the Avett Brothers for some nice, acoustic fingerpicking in the sunshine. Give a listen.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010


"Howl" and beat poet Allen Ginsberg get the Hollywood treatment. Shocking for its boundless unguarded stream of consciousness ranting and its graphic and disturbing imagery when it was first published in 1956 (and still shocking to some, even in this age of no-holds-barred internet porn and relatively relaxed attitudes about language and sex) "Howl" landed Ginsberg in a huge obscenity trial. Not surprisingly. This game-changing poem was a crazy headlong visionary jam howled by a bearded, pot-smoking, gay, weirdo, communist, hallucinating Buddhist, and it provided an easy target for the so-called moral guardians of the day. Still, the question remains: should an adult in a free society be allowed to read what he or she wants?

Watch these clips from "Howl," the movie:

I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by
starving hysterical naked,
dragging themselves through the negro streets at dawn
looking for an angry fix,
angelheaded hipsters burning for the ancient heavenly
connection to the starry dynamo in the machinery of night,
who poverty and tatters and hollow-eyed and high sat
up smoking in the supernatural darkness of cold-water flats floating across the tops of cities
contemplating jazz,
who bared their brains to Heaven under the El and
saw Mohammedan angels staggering on tenement roofs illuminated,
who passed through universities with radiant cool eyes
hallucinating Arkansas and Blake-light tragedy
among the scholars of war,
who were expelled from the academies for crazy &
publishing obscene odes on the windows of the skull,
who cowered in unshaven rooms in underwear,
burning their money in wastebaskets and listening
to the Terror through the wall,
who got busted in their pubic beards returning through
Laredo with a belt of marijuana for New York...

"Howl" read by Ginsberg and actor John Turturro.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010


Today I’ve made a major decision:
I am never going to die. Others will die around me. They will be nullified. Nothing of their personality will remain. The light switch will be turned off. Their lives, their entirety, will be marked by glossy marble headstones bearing false summations (“her star shone brightly,” “never to be forgotten,” “he liked jazz”), and then these too will be lost in a coastal flood or get hacked to pieces by some genetically modified future- turkey.

So begins the new book by Gary Shteyngart. And now for the commercial.

Gary Shteyngart is an hilarious novelist with great production values. Few could match his darkly comedic skills--not to mention his big budget for self promotion. Is this how it's done? Well, maybe. Shteyngart, the author of the much-acclaimed "Absurdistan" (2006) and "The Russian Debutante's Handbook" (2003) hardly needs the publicity, but maybe he does. The public isn't buying fiction, after all. The novel is dead.

Dead or dying, anyway, according to the alarmists. Maybe they're crying wolf. At any rate, it's been a long slow death. José Ortega y Gasset gave us an early diagnosis in Decline of the Novel in 1925. Walter Benjamin agreed in 1930. Vidal and Barthes and Sukenick published their condolences. Tom Wolfe sent flowers. Robert B. Pippen sent a wreath. People got dressed for a funeral, but somehow the patient survived.

Lately, the funereal phalanx has returned. Lee Siegel, writing in the New York Observer, caused quite an uproar recently when he publicly lamented the loss of great novels and novelists--Hemingway, Faulkner and Fitzgerald--and informed us that fiction has become culturally irrelevant. He attacked the New Yorker magazine's controversial "20 under 40" list of luminary fiction writers (coincidentally, Shteyngart made the list). "Ordinary civilians" no longer read serious writing, says Siegel. There was an existential urgency "with which people used to respond to novels by Bellow, Updike, Mailer, Roth, Cheever, Malamud-the list goes on and on."

Carolyn Kellogg takes him on, point by point, in the LA Times' book blog, Jacket Copy. In "Fiction is Dead. Again" she tears him a new one. "Siegel's piece flogs a tired horse, that fiction is less central to our culture than it was in the 1950s and 1960s, and not as good. It's hard to figure out which is more problematic: how poorly Siegel's argument is made, or how many things he gets wrong in the process."

Vanessa Thorpe, writing in The Observer (of the Guardian UK) jumped into the fray. "Siegel smears the whole literary pack as being damagingly self-referential and led by the nose by publicists."

Alastair Harper, in the Guardian Books Blog, wonders if big books are simply too hard to read. He admits he might be lazy, but wonders why anyone should read a difficult, challenging book. In this age of easy entertainment, worlds at our fingertips, he may have a point--or at least he may speak for many people out there.

Gary Shteyngart. He's no Tolstoy. (Read his short work at the New Yorker archive)

Saturday, July 17, 2010


You don't have to read Herbert Marcuse to realize that advanced industrial society creates false needs which integrate individuals into a system of production and consumption. In other words, mass media and advertising sell you things you don't need. Advertising creates insecurity it then promises to alleviate--for a price.

We're obviously helpless without their products

On top of making us into good little consumers, Marcuse argues that the system attempts to eliminate negativity, critique, and opposition, resulting in a society of obedient, silent "one-dimensional" men. Advertising does its best to sell products, of course, but by hammering away at us constantly it undermines our aptitude and ability for critical thinking and oppositional behavior. It takes some work avoiding such conditioning, and we all feel critical of overt commercial brainwashing, yet such a constant barrage of commercials must have an effect on our psyches. What's the mental cost of such exposure?

There I go again, getting heavy. Sorry. Go ahead and buy useless crap you don't need--it makes America strong. Get some cigarettes and some of that colored sugar water and something loaded with corn syrup and polyunsaturated fats, or better yet buy an SUV. Buy the lifestyle, or risk looking foolish or ugly or lacking in sex appeal. Besides, if you don't consume in mass quantities, the terrorists win. Resistance is futile.

It's really so easy to operate...

Even so, it's nice to see advertisers screw up--which used to be common on live TV, though it's rare these days. The best place to look for hilarious foul-ups are in the insidious "infomercials" that batter out consciousnesses late at night--or all day long, on the shopping channels. They don't have billion dollar budgets like Coca Cola or Budweiser so their machinations are even more apparent. Have a good laugh at these foul-ups. And don't believe everything you see on TV.

The samurai way is full of obstacles...

Friday, July 16, 2010


This is a training film for the Lockheed P-38 Lightning shown to aviation cadets in the US Army Air Corps (the forerunner of the US Air Force) during World War II. I've been researching the air war for a writing project I'm working on. We know fighter pilots from the movies--romantic characters like Errol Flynn looking dashing in their flak jackets and crushed caps, silk scarves flying, risking it all in the skies--but, aside from guts, what did it take to become a fighter pilot? Consulting the USAAF Handbook 1939-45, I was surprised how extensive the training was for all aviation cadets--but especially fighter pilots.

Flying training took up to 36 weeks--12 each for primary, basic and advanced training--and at any point a cadet could "wash out" and get sent to gunnery school. That would be a one-way ticket to the infantry.

Pre-flight training took 1-5 months, depending on test scores, and a barrage of physio-motor tests and a 64 exam: from here--if you didn't get bounced--you would be classified to begin training as a navigator, a bombardier or a pilot.

Aviation cadets continued with Primary Training. Primary consisted of 225 hours of ground school instruction and 65 hours of flight training. Advanced training took ten weeks, with 70 hours flying, 60 hours ground school, and 19 military. Based on performance and choice, cadets were earmarked for heavy or medium bombardment, transports, troop carriers or twin-engine flyers--which could be large bombers or a twin-engine fighter plane like the P-38. At the end of advanced training, the cadet received his silver pilot's wings and was commissioned a 2nd lieutenant.

The 55th Fighter Group, in flight

But it wasn't over yet. From there, pilots trained in a five week transition course with the plane they would be flying. Up to now, they had trained in single-engine planes, but those destined for flying P-38s would now fly P-322s (modified P-38s). Through this course, pilots would become well-versed in landings and take-offs (every cadet landed 175 times) and expected to exhibit precision control in flying elementary 8s, lazy 8s, pylon 8s, barrel rolls, Immelmann turns and chandelles. From there, they formed fighting teams and then it was off to the war.

I've shown the essentials, there is plenty more, all part of becoming a fighter pilot. In their crushed caps and flak jackets, the flyboys made it look easy, but behind all the glamor they were highly trained professionals. During the war, air crews had a higher mortality rate than even the infantry, hovering around 50% during its peak. The number of combat missions required of an aviator grew from 25 to 30 and then finally 35. The odds were never good, but every time our required nerves of steel with flak guns and enemy fighters trying to shoot you down.

My uncle, Lt. Albert Albino, talks with the ground crew in front of his P-38H, "The Spirit of Aberdeen." He flew with the 55th Fighter Group, 38th Squadron of the Mighty Eighth Air Force based in Nuthampstead, England. He was shot down (killed in action) on November 29th, 1943.

Thursday, July 15, 2010


The Graduate Center at The City University of New York recently hosted a forum entitled "BOB DYLAN: AMERICAN POET." The distinguished panel included Greil Marcus, John Corigliano and Howard Fishman. Dylan has received serious academic consideration for years (most recently in Christopher Ricks' "Dylan's Visions of Sin"), but the CUNY discussion is notable--and fascinating.

You know me. I'm an unrepentant Dylan fan. As far as I'm concerned, he's the greatest songwriter of the past century. No one comes close. There have been other great songwriters, of course, and some very clever--Cole Porter, George & Ira Gershwin, Hoagy Carmichael, Harry Warren, the hitmakers from Tin Pan Alley, Leiber and Stoller, Chuck Berry, Lennon and McCartney, Randy Newman, Brian Wilson, Elvis Costello--but it took Dylan to elevate the pop song into poetry. These academics agree. Not that we need their approval, of course. This is popular music and we can see for ourselves, or hear for ourselves.

But poetry? That's an elitist concern, like classical music, like opera, like dusty old tomes in university libraries argued over by pedantic, hair-splitting professors. Tweed jackets and elbow patches, right? Pipe smokers? Every rough fiber in their being--not to mention their tweeds--warns us we couldn't possibly understand the supernal delights of "Rime of the Ancient Mariner," say, so please leave poetry to the experts. Puff, puff. Poetry surely has nothing to do with a scruffy, rasping hillbilly with a guitar. This unwashed, unkempt outsider!

I went off with my hands in my torn coat pockets;
My overcoat was becoming ideal...
My only pair of pants had a big hole in them.
– Stargazing Tom Thumb, I sowed rhymes along my way..
rhyming among the fantastic shadows,
I plucked like the strings of a lyre the elastics
Of my tattered boots, one foot close to my heart!

That might have been written by Dylan. Surely he has more in common with Rimbaud than with fussy academics guarding the cannon against the barbarians. Rimbaud, like Dylan, was one of the barbarians. He stopped writing poetry when he was nineteen, and ended up running guns to Africa--hardly the comfy chair for him, the book-lined study, the quibbling in classrooms. Eventually, the profs catch up with the barbarians, allowing a few to enter the great halls. Rimbaud is now entombed in the canon, of course. Maybe Dylan, too, someday.

"Desolation Row" came from the 1965 album "Highway 61 Revisited," the record that included the hit song "Like a Rolling Stone." It was already his 6th album. (click play)

Ophelia, she’s ’neath the window
For her I feel so afraid
On her twenty-second birthday
She already is an old maid
To her, death is quite romantic
She wears an iron vest
Her profession’s her religion
Her sin is her lifelessness

"Blind Wille McTell" was recorded in 1983 and originally passed over for an album. It's hard to believe Dylan threw away this gem. For years it circulated as an outtake among collectors, and only when "Bob Dylan: The Bootleg Series" was officially released did most people get a chance to hear this haunting evocation of the blues singer and the Deep South. Listen:

See them big plantations burning
Hear the cracking of the whips
Smell that sweet magnolia blooming
See the ghosts of slavery ships

There’s a woman by the river
With some fine young handsome man
He’s dressed up like a squire
Bootlegged whiskey in his hand

Dylan wrote "Things Have Changed" for the film of Michael Chabon's novel Wonder Boys. It won an Academy Award for Best Original Song. Here, Dylan's older, looking world weary as he puffs on a cigar, the mystery man who once symbolized commitment and giving a damn, but things have changed:

A worried man with a worried mind
No one in front of me and nothing behind
There’s a woman on my lap and she’s drinking champagne
Got white skin, got assassin’s eyes
I’m looking up into the sapphire-tinted skies
I’m well dressed, waiting on the last train...

People are crazy and times are strange,
I'm locked in tight, I'm out of range,
I used to care, but things have changed.

note: Believe it or not, it's been a couple months since we posted Bob Dylan. In that time we've posted a host of other musicians, including Janis Joplin, Willie Nelson, The Fugs, Bill Frisell, Artie Shaw, Jerry Jeff Walker, Nanci Griffith, Astor Piazzolla, Howlin' Wolf, Spike Jones, Bruce Springsteen, Sly & the Family Stone, Eric Burdon, Los Lobos, Blind Faith, the Stones, Lambchop, Merle Haggard, Neko Case, Jimi Hendrix, Cat Power, Joni Mitchell and Mama Cass. We're doing our best to cover a wide range of music that you might not hear on the radio.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010


Tuli Kupferberg, September 28, 1923 – July 12, 2010

Okay, guys, so quit dying. Yesterday I got the news that Tuli Kupferberg, co-founder of the Fugs, passed away. Tuli and Ed Sanders formed the band in 1964, taking the name from a euphemism for "f**k" used in Norman Mailer's novel, The Naked and the Dead. The Fugs were political and social provocateurs, poets in the beat tradition, over-educated New York bums. They bridged the folk and rock scene, and were the link between the beatniks and the hippies, and were busted for obscenity on a regular basis. What would you expect in a society where even using the word "sex" was considered bad taste?

They could sing something sweet and gentle like "I Want to Know" or "Morning, Morning" like medieval troubadours ("Morning, morning, feel so lonesome in the morning...Starshine, starshine, darling kiss me as I leave") then turn into your parents' worst nightmare and sing "Johnny Pissoff Meets the Red Angel" or "Kill for Peace" or "I'm Doin' All Right." Click on play button:

I'm not ever gonna go to Vietnam
I prefer to stay right here and screw your mom
when you see me on the street you yell 'Jesus Christ!'
but I"m gettin' mine...
I'm doin' all right

This was not the sweet Joan Baez side of the peace movement--this was in-your-face street theater from the Lower East Side, hardcore beatniks with electric guitars who played William Blake's Songs of Innocence by starlight and in the harsh light of day taunted squares like cabbies in a traffic jam. This was The Fugs, and we loved them.

The Fugs: Ed Sanders, Tuli Kupferberg, Ken Weaver

Was this a cultural revolution or just plain old bad manners? They were shocking to some, but fans found more obscenity in the news coming out of Vietnam. Sure, they said bad words. Get over it. Airplanes were dropping napalm, Buddhists monks were burning in protest, politicians were lying. The CIA was assassinating elected officials, mining harbors, torturing prisoners and "destabilizing" governments--all in the name of American freedom. The Fugs, on the other hand, were all about freedom.

Listen to CIA Man by the Fugs:

In our upstanding community--like so many across the country--Fugs albums were contraband, communiques from the underground smuggled in under cover of night, a direct link to the Beat artists and Blake and crazy mad Greenwich Village and the anti-war parade. We huddled around primitive record players and heard phrases like "sea-green penis" and "petrified tapir snout" and "buttocks popping arpeggios of lust" and "nameless voices crying for kindness." They never made it on Hollywood Palace or Ed Sullivan, that's for sure. They never had a hit on the Top 40. Tuli and Ed Sanders were subversive scholars tossing a wrench in the works--where else would you hear something like "Swinburne Stomp" or "Auguries of Innocence" or "Ramses II is Dead, My Love," not to mention "Amphetamine Shriek" or "Kill for Peace"? Dangerous words uttered on the steps of Athens. Tuli Kupferberg was a poet warrior, a "yiddish-speaking 60’s rebel, an unrepentant anarcho-pacifist," an absolutely honest man with a sling in his hand and a tiny pebble. Rest his dangerous soul.

The final word from Tuli Kupferberg:

Tuli Kupferberg THERE ARE ONLY THREE JOKES from Thelma Blitz on Vimeo.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010


Harvey Pekar, 1939-2010

Harvey Pekar chronicled his life in an autobiographical comic book series "American Splendor," portraying himself as a obsessive-compulsive curmudgeon at war with loneliness and depression. Pekar was difficult--not one for cocktail party chit chat--and he might have remained a cranky, unknown file clerk had it not been for a fortuitous friendship with cartoonist Robert Crumb. He first met Crumb in 1962 at the American Greetings in Cleveland, and the artist illustrated Pekar's first autobiographical comic in 1972.

Pekar continued collaborating with cartoonists. He wrote and they drew. According to Wikipedia, "Pekar's most well-known and longest-running collaborators include Crumb, Gary Dumm, Greg Budgett, Spain Rodriguez, Joe Zabel, Gerry Shamray, Frank Stack, Mark Zingarelli, and Joe Sacco; while recent years have seen him repeatedly team up with artists like Dean Haspiel and Josh Neufeld. Other notable cartoonists who have worked with Pekar include Jim Woodring, Chester Brown, Alison Bechdel, Gilbert Hernandez, Eddie Campbell, David Collier, Drew Friedman, Ho Che Anderson, Rick Geary, Ed Piskor, Hunt Emerson, Bob Fingerman, and Alex Wald."

Pekar and Paul Giamatti

From there he earned underground fame and flirted with mainstream attention from some cranky bouts with David Letterman and the film of his story,"American Splendor," starring Paul Giamatti as Pekar.

Harvey was found dead at 1 am by his wife, Joyce Babner, in their Cleveland home. Cause of death is yet to be determined. He'd fought cancer for years (first diagnosed with lymphatic cancer in 1990, resulting in a comic called "Our Cancer Year"). "He was recently diagnosed with prostate cancer," says the Cleveland Plain Dealer, "and also suffered high blood pressure, asthma and clinical depression, which fueled his art but often made his life painful."

In 1989, the New York Times Book Review said, "Mr. Pekar's work has been compared by literary critics to Chekhov's and Dostoevski's, and it's easy to see why."

Sunday, July 11, 2010


Janis Joplin was a wild woman with a big heart and a big voice. In the parlance of the day, she let her freak flag fly. Larger than life, like a cross between Annie Oakley and Bessie Smith, she sang as if her life depended on it. Maybe it did. She acted tough, like she didn't care what anyone thought, but you can tell she sings the blues from experience. Back then, she was a crazy hippie freak and the squares didn't know what to make of her. Even Dick Cavett, probably the most intellectual of the talk show hosts, boasting a Yale education and liberal politics, has a hard time with Janis. She comes out like gangbusters in boots and scarves and feather boas, the last of the red hot mamas, and Cavett mistakenly thinks he can play her for laughs. She wins him over, as she wins us, with genuine warmth. And when she sings, forget about it it. You'd better feel it or you're a couple quarts low on soul. No doubt some slick producers might have thought, Well, this chick has talent if she only reigned it in a little, smoothed out her rough edges and acted a little more ladylike--but that would be missing the point. She was rough as a catfight in a barrelhouse and sweet as Tupelo honey. She could break your heart while she called you on your dirty lowdown ways.

Nowadays, in this age of rehab and self-help, folks will remember Janis as a sixties icons who died--like so many of them--from her excesses, her addictions, more of a cautionary tale than real person, but that's simplifying Janis, and she was anything but simple. She was real, all right--so real she demanded you become real, too, and meet her halfway, at least, in that place beyond Hollywood plastic and pop entertainment with its cookie cutter sentiment. That's too much to ask of some people. When she talks about returning to her hometown for her high school reunion she's not just making clever chit chat for a talk show. It's an amazing moment. Watching these clips make me miss Janis and what she brought to the party--if she were here she'd probably laugh and say don't get so serious, honey, have a swig of Southern Comfort and let's get this party started.

Saturday, July 10, 2010


Bill Frisell is an amazing musician--a guitar player who combines jazz, rock, folk, country, oldtime Americana and otherworldly space music and makes it his own. I've seen him play an entire evening of Thelonious Monk, or trade jazzy licks with another guitar gunslinger, or draw from the great American songbook and play "Shenandoah" and "A Change is Gonna Come." He's also a crack session guitarist, and undoubtedly you've heard him play on records by others without even knowing it, with everyone from John Zorn to Elvis Costello, Lucinda Williams to Steve Earle, Ron Carter to Bono. His own albums are amazing journeys. My favorites are "Good Dog, Happy Man," "The Willies," "Have a Little Faith," and "History, Mystery," a double album with tracks originally written for Mysterio Sympatico, a multi-media collaboration with artist Jim Woodring that premiered at St. Ann's Warehouse in Brooklyn in 2002.

Bill Frisell runs with the big dogs but stays cool

Bill Frisell can play anything. Maybe that's why he's won Grammy Awards and topped the prestigious DownBeat Magazine's critic poll for best jazz album of the year and best guitar player of the year, several times. You'd think this would all go to his head, but I've had the pleasure of meeting Bill a few times and he's always been thoughtful and soft-spoken, with an easy smile and a gentle sense of humor--eons from the arrogance one might expect from a world class musician. He may be a musical genius, sure, but he's not about to throw the television out the hotel window. He's a guitar player inspired by music, all kinds. Go buy his albums.

"Sugar Baby" by Bill Frisell, with special guest Djelimady Tounkara,
and Greg Leisz, Jenny Scheinman, Sidiki Camara~Feb 29, 2004

Friday, July 9, 2010


We're in the middle of a hot spell, so someone must be praying to Horus, the Egyptian God of the Sun. Horus is one of the oldest deities in the Ancient Egyptian religion, and often depicted as a falcon, or a man with a falcon's head. Worshipped from the Dynastic Period through Greco-Roman times, Horus is also known as the Lord of the Sky.

A few years ago I painted a spoof of the old calendar art of dogs playing poker with gods playing poker and included Horus on the top left. You probably recognize some of the others. By the way, if you stumble upon a high stakes poker game like this I'd advise you not to buy in. (More of my artwork can be found at Bob Rini Makes Art)

"High Stakes"

Thursday, July 8, 2010


Down in Texas there's a war--always has been--between shitkickers and hippies. The kickers are cowboys who wear cowboy hats and boots and Texas longhorn belt buckles and love George Bush and hate the damn hippies. As Jerry Jeff Walker put it in his song "Up Against the Wall, Redneck Mother," the typical kicker chases down his Falstaff beer with Wild Turkey, and drives a fifty-seven GMC pickup truck with a gun rack and a bumper sticker that reads "Goat ropers need love, too." Speaking of love, kickers love nothing more than "kicking hippies asses and raisin' hell."

Marlboro Man, shitkicker

Texas hippies, on the other hand, tend to wear their hair long and smoke loco weed now and then, or at least drink some good Shiner Bock beer. They are fiercely independent and take after the outlaws of the Wild West. They might wear cowboy hats and boots, but they're decidedly outlaw about it. Willie Nelson is the classic example. Or Townes Van Zandt. Or the folks in the video up top.

Townes Van Zandt, hippie

While the Texas longhorn is the symbol of all things kicker, the mascot of the Texas hippies is the armadillo, a tough little creature that knows when to roll into a ball. Armadillos were popularized for the alternate Texas scene by cartoonist Jim Franklin back in the sixties, and in 1970 the Armadillo World Headquarters opened in Austin for rock shows and other subversive hippie activities. It's been a long strange trip but those ornery little buggers are still hanging on.

In Texas, both the kickers and the hippies love country music, barbecue, Mexican food, and--surprisingly enough--Willie Nelson (who doesn't?). Willie is a dyed-in-the-wool Texas hippie and patron saint of Austin, Texas. God bless Willie.

Willie Nelson, damn hippie

Of course, we're speaking in gross generalities--no one is truly and completely a cultural stereotype, after all, but you'd be surprised how many folks fit somewhere on this spectrum. And there are other mutations in Texas, too, such as cowpunks and rockabillies, Texas Swingers, Texas Two-steppers, rodeo clowns and a huge population of Hispanics and Native Americans who were there before white folks showed up. Still, for the sake of our overly simple dichotomy, play along with me...okay? Now let's listen to some music.

Top clip: Nanci Griffith joined by the best of the Texas singers and songwriters, Guy Clark, Jerry Jeff Walker, Steve Earle, Rodney Crowell, Eric Taylor and Jimmie Dale Gilmore. They sing a classic country song written by Guy Clark, "Desperadoes Waiting for a Train." The song is guaranteed to melt the toughest kicker heart.

Willie and friends, including Kris Kristofferson, singing "Ain't it Funny How Time Slips Away."

Tuesday, July 6, 2010


In this interview, novelist David Foster Wallace (1962-2008) discusses black humor, politics, literature and suicide in America. As usual, he's provocative and thoughtful and doesn't mind stirring the hornet's nest--you might not agree with him, but if you've read "Infinite Jest" or any of his marvelous essays you know he's a serious thinker and worthy of your time. There are easier people to read (he mentions a few, in passing) but serious readers are rewarded for grappling with his work.

"If what's always distinguished bad writing--flat characters, a narrative world that's clichéd and not recognizably human, etc.--is also a description of today's world, then bad writing becomes an ingenious mimesis of a bad world. If readers simply believe the world is stupid and shallow and mean, then [Bret] Ellis can write a mean shallow stupid novel that becomes a mordant deadpan commentary on the badness of everything. Look man, we'd probably most of us agree that these are dark times, and stupid ones, but do we need fiction that does nothing but dramatize how dark and stupid everything is? [...] Postmodern irony and cynicism's become an end in itself, a measure of hip sophistication and literary savvy. Few artists dare to try to talk about ways of working toward redeeming what's wrong, because they'll look sentimental and naive to all the weary ironists. Irony's gone from liberating to enslaving." -DFW

Monday, July 5, 2010


Jim Woodring is a visionary artist who captures dreams in a fine net and brings them back to share. His vivid paintings and beautifully rendered pen and ink drawings have blown minds for years, and now he has a new graphic novel called Weathercraft. If I told you how good it was you wouldn't believe me, since I'm a friend of Jim's, so here's what the New York Times (May 27, 2010) had to say:

"Over the last few decades, Jim Wood­ring has been drawing a series of wordless, blissfully cruel slapstick fables, set in a world of grotesque entities and psychedelic minarets: half unshakable nightmare, half Chuck Jones cartoon filtered through the Bhagavad Gita."

Sounds like the New York Times is smoking something funny, you say, but they are simply under the powerful psychedelic spell of Jim Woodring. That's the risk you take encountering his work. The new book is no different, and pulls you into another dimension. It's hard to describe. Here's the Times again, taking a stab at it:

"WEATHERCRAFT (Fantagraphics, $19.99) throws a spotlight on the venal, piglike creature Manhog, who’s often the villain of Wood­ring’s stories. After a series of scourges inflicted by bees, flat-headed monstrosities and a flesh-warping devil, Manhog attains enlightenment or something like it, then rips open the Veil of Maya with his bare hands and avenges a horribly mutated pyramidal chicken, eventually sacrificing his enlightenment again. At least, that’s what seems to be going on: Woodring’s story flows so smoothly and delightfully from each image to the next that it’s easy to ignore that it has its own idea of sense, which may not jibe with anybody else’s."
-New York Times, (5/27/10)

Woo-eee, those city boys sure can talk.

Jim was interviewed recently on the Dusty Wright Show for his opening in New York. He won't watch it, but you can.

Jim was just interviewed by the AV Club at the Onion--check it out here.


People want simple answers and despise ambiguity, and artists are always making things less simple, pushing boundaries, expanding the dimensions of what is possible, undermining cliches, remixing disparate elements. You want absolute clarity--try religion or hard science--don't ask artists to make your world a smaller, simpler place. There are no absolutes. Artists show beauty in ugliness, light in darkness, sorrow in joy, and skip comfy cozy dichotomies--including those within art itself (high vs low art, for example--jettison that notion) and that is precisely what most people don't want. If one judges success in merely monetary terms, it's pretty simple to see what is successful, but success in artistic terms is harder to nail down. Sometimes a work that is successful to the artist doesn't sell, while something that she feels is derivative or hackwork sells. The world itself is complex and boundless and the artist tries to remind people of the fact with a gentle slap or a kiss or whatever--if people want to hear it or not.

Sunday, July 4, 2010


Firecrackers were dangerous and forbidden and had the devilish reek of sulfur and sin. They could blow your hand off. They were illegal, sort of, unless you went to an Indian reservation or some dilapidated fireworks stand outside the city limits where you slapped your money down and got the hell out of there before everything blew up. Or you went to a third world country. Our California cousins would score fireworks in Mexico and show up with enough ordnance to restage the Normandy Invasion. They'd unload strings of firecrackers, cherry bombs, smoke bombs, bottle rockets, Roman candles and M-80s--which were basically quarter sticks of dynamite. They were trouble, but without the California cousins we only had spindly sparklers and a few snakes that scorched the driveway. With their military support, the 4th of July was a serious wartime action. (To my knowledge, they still have all their fingers.)

Firecrackers were made in sweatshops overseas, that much we knew. You pictured endless hangars of old women and children stuffing gunpowder into colored paper tubes while armed guards strode on catwalks overhead eyeballing the workers. Busy busy busy until someone collapsed from heat exhaustion and were dropped through a trapdoor, then it was back to work, doubletime, chop chop, or forget about that noonday ladle of stagnant rainwater. Meanwhile, stateside, we rode Stingray bikes and gorged on hot dogs and potato salad and somebody tossed a football around and eventually the summer evening twilight came and we watched the fireworks.

The labels were beautiful, especially the old ones. Black Cat was my favorite, but there were beautiful birds and landscapes and devils. Wonderfully weird illustrations. You never knew King Kong had wings, did you?

Saturday, July 3, 2010


Spike Jones perfectly expresses our feelings about patriotism in this clip. It's kind of crazy, huh? Hear the rattling sabers and the pounding drums, the fizzle of fireworks and the flatulent brass--this is America, by golly! Hooray! We're putting up this special red, white and hullabaloo a day early because tomorrow we'll be out grilling hot dogs and shooting off rockets and drinking beers and forgetting all common sense. You know, freedom stuff. Take a whiff. You can almost smell the gunpowder and ballpark franks--it smells like victory. Have a happy 4th of July. With that in mind, here are some mindful thoughts on patriotism:

“As long as people believe in absurdities, they will continue to commit atrocities.”

“Conceit, arrogance and egotism are the essentials of patriotism…Patriotism assumes that our globe is divided into little spots, each one surrounded by an iron gate. Those who had the fortune of being born on some particular spot, consider themselves better, nobler, grander, more intelligent than the living beings inhabiting any other spot. It is, therefore, the duty of everyone living on that chosen spot to fight, kill, and die in the attempt to impose his superiority upon all others."
— Emma Goldman

“The loud little handful will shout for war. The pulpit will warily and cautiously protest at first…The great mass of the nation will rub its sleepy eyes, and will try to make out why there should be a war, and they will say earnestly and indignantly: ‘It is unjust and dishonorable and there is no need for war.’ Then the few will shout even louder…Before long you will see a curious thing: anti-war speakers will be stoned from the platform, and free speech will be strangled by hordes of furious men who still agree with the speakers but dare not admit it...Next, statesmen will invent cheap lies, putting blame upon the nation that is attacked, and every man will be glad of those conscience-soothing falsities, and will diligently study them, and refuse to examine any refutations of them; and thus he will by and by convince himself that the war is just, and will thank God for the better sleep he enjoys after this process of grotesque self-deception.”
— Mark Twain

Friday, July 2, 2010


Abdul Mati Klarwein painted "Annunciation" in 1961. You may remember it used for the cover of "Abraxas" years later. Miles Davis also used the artist's work for the cover of "Bitches Brew." Klarwein's lurid, lysergic surrealism seemed to invite either seductive pipedreams or unsettling nightmares. Musicians responded, using it to represent some of their most experimental work, and it's hard to separate these discs from their "cover art." With the reduction of album art to CD size, and then finally vanishing altogether in the age of MP3s, it's hard to imagine the role cover art played in the total experience of the music. Mati's artwork was used on album covers for many others besides Miles and Santana, including Eric Dolphy, Jackie Maclean, Osibisa, The Last Poets, Leonard Bernstein, Greg Allman, Brian Eno and Earth, Wind and Fire. (click images to enlarge)

"A picture might be worth a thousand words but a good sentence is worth a thousand windows" — Mati Klarwein

Mati Klarwein (1932-2002) was born in Hamburg, Germany, of Jewish origin. His family escaped when Hitler rose to power, moving to Palestine. In 1948, when the territory became Israel, his family moved to Paris where Mati attended the Ecole des Beaux-Arts and later studied with Fernand Leger. Mati traveled and lived in many places, including India, Tibet, Bali, North Africa, Europe and the Americas before finally settling in New York in the early 1960s.

Thursday, July 1, 2010


Astor Piazzolla plays the beautiful "Adios Nonino" with the Cologne Radio Orchestra.

Astor Piazzolla, Argentine tango composer and bandoneón player, was born in 1921 to Italian parents, Vicente Nonino Piazzolla and Asunta Manetti. He lived in Argentina, New York, Uruguay and Paris, and all the drama and mystery of these places came together in his music, which stirred a tango revival called the "Tango Nuevo," or new tango.

The tango first emerged in the 1890s in the rough slums and mean streets of Buenos Aires, and it was "the tango of the knife and the brothel." The music and the dance--with its close embrace, quick steps and complex footwork--can be traced back to a time when street barrel organs played in the working-class slums of BA that were packed with European immigrants, primarily Italians, Spanish and French.

This was the rough tango, the brutal tango so beloved by Jorge Luis Borges, who wrote about it many times. "Musically, the tango ought not to be important," he says. "Its only importance is that which we give to it. This reflection is correct, but perhaps applies to everything. For example, to our own personal death or to the woman who disdains us...The tango can be debated, and we have debates over it, but it still encloses, as does all that which is truthful, a secret."

In a way, the secret was out a long time ago. By the turn of the last century, the tango craze swept Paris, Berlin, London and finally the world, and soon tango orchestras were touring and everyone was doing it. Tango became respectable. Before long there was ballroom tango and sophisticated tango, jazzy tango and elegant tango--and some of the rough old crowd, including Borges, lamented the loss. Things change. You can still feel the old school tango in Piazzolla, and the respect he pays to the past. This is passionate music, in whatever form it takes--and critics would divide the music into three types--the Old Guard (the creole tango Borges sorely missed), the New Guard (including tango-milonga and tango-cancion), and the Tango Nuevo (the avant-garde tango a la Piazzolla).

Listen. See if you can feel the old drama, or catch the flash of the knife. It's all there. Piazzolla died in 1992 but his influence is still wide ranging and his music still enjoyed. Borges is dead, too, but his labyrinthine fiction lives on, entrapping new readers all the time. And tango is alive and well.